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Interview: Beyond Ron Swanson 

Nick Offerman is a polymath. Though the term typically evokes images of some untouchable legend from the Renaissance, or a public figure relegated to the halls of academia, it also applies to the blue-collar Illinois farmboy-turned-Hollywood actor.

While Offerman is inarguably best known for his portrayal of the meat-loving, libertarian-leaning government official Ron Swanson in NBC's hit sitcom "Parks and Recreation," his film and TV career has been far from one-note.

click to enlarge “We’re a bunch of real dipshits, and let’s laugh at that," actor-comedian Nick Offerman says. "But while we’re laughing, let’s also recognize that we’re not done getting better, and we never will be.” - PHOTO BY MATT WINKELMEYER
  • PHOTO BY MATT WINKELMEYER
  • “We’re a bunch of real dipshits, and let’s laugh at that," actor-comedian Nick Offerman says. "But while we’re laughing, let’s also recognize that we’re not done getting better, and we never will be.”

He's played burger restauranteur Dick McDonald in the 2016 film "The Founder," and has had extended stints on the series "Fargo" and "Childrens Hospital." He's also provided the voice of Metal Beard in the LEGO movies, and he co-hosts the craft competition show "Making It" with his "Parks and Rec" co-star Amy Poehler.

But he's also written four books, including "Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living" and "Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers." His other books delve into his marriage (co-written with his wife, actress Megan Mullally) and his love for woodworking as head of Offerman Wood Shop. He's in the process of researching and meeting with people in preparation for a fifth book with a working title of "Walden Now," about reconnecting with nature.

Offerman continues to be a prominent pop culture figure in the public eye, in part through performing comedy shows like the Netflix special "American Ham," his "Full Bush" tour from 2016 and 2017 and his new live show, "All Rise." CITY caught up with Offerman over the phone last month to discuss what Rochester audiences can expect from his November 24 performances of "All Rise" at Kodak Center, his approach to humor in the current political climate, and why he's not a stand-up comedian. An edited transcript follows.

CITY: It's been almost five years since "Parks and Recreation" last aired. Does it remain challenging to get out from the cultural shadow that Ron Swanson has cast in the public eye? Does it still feel like the mythology of that character has as much cultural sway as it has had in the past?

Nick Offerman: I do feel like it does. I'm absolutely contending with it, I think even more than when the show was airing. And that's because "Parks & Rec" has been incredibly popular on streaming channels. And so I think a much larger population of young people have found the show in the years since we finished shooting it.

But contending with that phenomenon is, I would say, 97 percent positive. There are worse problems that I think I could have in my life than dealing with a very popular and beloved TV character. The world seems to be allowing me to essay other acting roles. And that was my biggest fear: Sometimes if you have a very popular comedy character, then the world doesn't want to see you do anything else. And so the fact that I've been able to keep working as an actor, really as much as I want to, I take as a wonderful gift.

If I were to complain about something, I think everybody around me would slap me full across the face. The only thing my life lacks is any naptime. I have all these wonderful opportunities to entertain people and make things, whether it's as an actor, as a writer, as a comedian, as a woodworker. I'm nothing but grateful for the mythology of Ron Swanson.

You've made a point to refer to yourself as a humorist rather than as a stand-up comedian? How do you make that distinction?

Well, I guess mainly, when I started doing this only six or seven years ago, I'm a theater actor who was mistakenly invited to perform my stand-up at colleges. And I said, "You know, I'd love to do that. I'd love to talk to 2,000 young people, but I don't feel incredibly confident in my joke-writing skills. But I'm pretty sure I can make you laugh. And so, to save us any confusion, I'll call myself a humorist, so you understand that I may go for a few sentences here and there without inserting a joke." And everyone seems to get along pretty well with that arrangement.

So it's a distinction about setting up the audience's expectations. Rather than "setup-punchline, setup-punchline," the structure is a little more drawn-out.

Exactly. Frankly, I feel like I get as much laughter in my shows as a stand-up. My delivery system is slightly different: I emulate more of a Will Rogers or Garrison Keillor paradigm than, I suppose, a Dave Chappelle battery.

Your humor manages to be both wry and optimistic. What keeps you from becoming cynical about the world we live in?

Yeah, that definitely seems to be the trope these days. I can't really credit anything in particular other than simply a natural optimism that I suppose was afforded me by my family. I grew up in an agricultural family in Illinois. My two uncles are still farming the same farm my mom grew up on. I think on the farm, you're either optimistic or you commit suicide. Farming can be so bleak, and for the American small farmer it's only getting worse and worse these days, suffering under industrial agriculture. And so, it's that idea that you can see your year's profits wiped out with one storm or one plague of locusts, and you have to either say, "Welp, I guess it's time to make a joke or eat the children, so let's try and laugh our way through this hardship."

How does "All Rise" differentiate itself from the special "American Ham" or your show "Full Bush"? What can audiences familiar with that work expect from this show?

I think, in a nutshell, my previous two specials, "American Ham" and Full Bush," were written before the last presidential election. And so, this is my first comedy writing since our nation has been plunged into these three years of incredible rancor and violent bipartisanship. And so, when I sat down to write this show, in previous efforts I said, "What are some notions I have that I think will make people laugh?" And this time around, I'm saying, "Ok, I feel like it's incumbent upon me to be medicinal in some way."

And so I wrote this show with the expressed purpose of trying to make fun of all of us, because if you take a small step back from the American population, it's easy to see we're one big group of people doing this to ourselves. Everybody is incredibly angry and full of ire, and if you just step across either ocean and look back at us, it's easy to say, "Uh, hey you guys live in a place where you get to vote and pick what happens. So maybe look in the mirror, if you're looking for someone to blame." The show is presented with that sensibility, and it seems to be going over like gangbusters.

Will there be a significant musical component to "All Rise," as in your past shows?

The show is in seven pieces. It's like seven essays, and when I get done talking, then I play a song that sort of encapsulates that subject matter. So it's seven speeches and seven songs.

I recently heard a comedian describe comedy as more of an iconoclastic tool for throwing a wrench into systems of power, taking people down a peg. But what you're prescribing here is more a call to unity. Maybe it's a bit of both?

There was a quote recently that got a lot of play, from the director of the "Joker" movie, Todd Phillips, where he said, "You can't do comedy in this modern, woke age." And he took a lot of heat for that, because those of us who are in fact doing comedy in this woke age simply say, "Maybe it's harder to do comedy where you're punching down at people." And he famously made the "Hangover" movie, which has a ton of punching down.

I think it's like any art form. If I was a painter, I could paint misogynist subject matter, I could objectify women, I could be racist. It all depends on what you wanna do with your art. So, if I'm trying to make people laugh, I can try and do that in a cheap, insecure way by making fun of people that traditionally suffer prejudice — minorities and different gender groups, and so forth. Or you can try to make people laugh by saying, "We're all really stupid. Aren't we a funny bunch of mammals?" And if anything, I make fun of white guys in my show because those are the people that have been in charge of this system. They made the rules for this country. And rule number one was "No girls." And rule number two was "Don't steal my black people. Those are my property."

So it's easy to say, "Look, we're doing our best. We're a bunch of pooping, reproducing mammals, who at the same time have cognizance and empathy and crave brightly colored athletic shoes. And so we're combining those complicated notions to try and exist in the world in a way that's fair to everyone. And we obviously have a very long way to go, but we've also come a very long way from where we started.

And I guess that's one of the places where I derive my optimism from, is just looking back across my life. If you had told me that gay marriage would become a totally normal thing, if you had told me that you can now buy medical marijuana in Oklahoma City, I would have happily eaten my hat when I was in high school at that news.

That's my way of thinking about it. When I first set out to write some stand-up, I literally had a very narrow knowledge of contemporary stand-up. The few comedians I was familiar with were like Rodney Dangerfield or Andrew Dice Clay or Eddie Murphy — people who I knew from my youth. And I thought, ok, well I guess the first thing that I do is make fun of my wife. That's what stand-ups do. And I said, "Well, hang on. I don't wanna make fun of my wife. I love my wife and respect my wife. And so, let me see if I can get some laughs with the subject matter being that I love my wife. And sure enough, I can.

You really set a precedent for finding this combination of erudition and crassness in your comedy that feels really intentional. Is that something that permeates in the show "All Rise" as well?

Sure. I've never sat down and said, "Ok, let me write 90 minutes of material with a characteristic combination of erudition and crassness. But you have a sharp eye. I think that is astute, and I think that this show absolutely has notions in it that are certainly hifalutin. And there are perhaps a few vocabulary words that might perk up the ears of an English major, and at the same time I am not afraid to talk about the animal functions of the human body.

What's interesting to me is that your comedy is wholesome in a way, while still being irreverent. Is that just part of the Midwest mystique that you bring to it, you think, or is it a conscious thing on your part to leave the audience feeling a certain way like that?

I'm tickled pink to hear you say that, because that's absolutely my aim. And I'm always rather astonished when people find anything that I do in my shows offensive. I mean I understand, on paper, why you would find it offensive. But my heart is very much in the right place, and I think that's the answer to your question.

I mean for all of my material to be uplifting, one way or another. And any of it that has the sensibility of "Hey, everybody: Here are ways in which I think we can elevate ourselves, here are ways in which I think we can continue to evolve ourselves as a society." And when I say those things and when I write those things, I'm first and foremost writing them to myself in the mirror. And I think the answer to your question lies in that as well, that I'm not holding myself above my audience, but instead saying, "We're a bunch of real dipshits, and let's laugh at that. But while we're laughing, let's also recognize that we're not done getting better, and we never will be." If you put a bunch of human beings together, and tell them to get along and everybody to share what's in their lunch bag, you're gonna have problems, as long as human beings are around. I'm just trying to do my small part in helping nudge us towards equity for all people.

Encouraging self-reliance and ingenuity seems to be a recurring theme in your comedy performances and books. What concerns you most about the direction society is going in, particularly as it relates to our dependence on technology?

That's a huge concern in our lives, and it's a pretty massive topic to get into, but I'll try to nutshell it. I grew up in a very self-sufficient family. Everybody started on a farm of some sort, and my whole family went on to become farmers, schoolteachers, nurses, paramedics, librarians — all salt-of-the-earth public servants. And my brother became a brewer of craft beer, so he's the king of the family.

But with that set of values and work ethic that I then carried forward into the urban centers where I need to reside — either to have a theater audience or to work in TV and film — I've been astonished at the general population's inability to discern a standard-head screwdriver from a Phillips head screwdriver, or the idea that everything is disposable. So if you get a flat tire on your car, you have to throw your car away and get a new one. All of this sort of softness and luxury plays into the hands of the corporate mentality, the industrial-military complex that would love nothing more than everyone to exist like phone-clicking sheep — people who just dutifully consume everything, as the corporations tell us to.

Because when you do that, you give up your agency and you no longer think about where all of your materials are coming from — whether it's the food you're eating or the clothes you're wearing or who's making your cars — all of our products and services. Once you say, "Oh, I just press a button on my phone and it shows up at my door," that allows these companies to do things like run sweatshops in Asian countries or in Central America. It allows grocery stores to fly in your blueberries from Chile, and all these things that aren't in accord with the way nature is running the planet.

And here we are: Suddenly everybody's waking up to the price. The waiter has arrived with the check, and we say, "Holy shit, we've been charged for all of this stuff." We've blindly said, "Hey, this is great: Let's leave the air conditioner cranked up while we go on vacation." And then eventually we say, "Oh, we've been charged for this. The planet is in deep trouble."

I grew up with the good fortune of knowing these things inherently, because I grew up in a low-income family that knew how to have a good time and knew how to create a satisfying life out of doing work that we respect, and out of the community of our family and our neighborhood.

Because I'm not a brilliant joke writer. My friend Zack Galifianakis can walk into your office and say the funniest thing you've ever heard. He just has a genius for that; Sarah Silverman is the same way. I'm not like that. What I try to do is take these pearls of wisdom that I've gleaned from all these great teachers in my life, and pass them along in as delicious a way as possible to my audience. I often say that I try to make a really yummy pizza that I've secretly snuck a surprising amount of broccoli into.

Which of your endeavors in entertainment has been the greatest synthesis of Nick Offerman the performer and Nick Offerman the person?

That would have to be either these touring shows, in which I get to flap my gums for an hour and a half and basically tell people what I think about stuff. I really love the delivery system of playing songs on the acoustic guitar. I love writing songs, and they seem to be really effective. People really respond generously to my songs.

But then at the same time, my books spring to mind. My shows, when I write them out, are 12 or 13 pages of text. And you know, my books are 250, 300 pages. Those are two examples. One involves seeing me, it's me speaking my actual mind onstage. But the other is me getting to dump a much more substantial amount of my ideas onto the written page.

So those are the two things. I always just wanted to be a dependable theater actor; that was my goal. And all of these other wonderful opportunities have come my way. It keeps me minding my manners. Every time I get to write another book or go on another tour, I understand it's another opportunity to become even more of a raging asshole than I already am. And so the alarm goes off, and I say, "Ok, you're being reminded. Don't become some sort of butthole with a yacht who's just trying to commit tax fraud and get away with accumulating wealth."

So I'm grateful for the opportunities to say, "Hey everybody, including you, Nick, who's writing this: Let's keep trying to strive for a world that's decent to everybody." 

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's music editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.

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